Niners at the bye: Offense

Going down the San Francisco roster by position to analyze what's right and wrong with the 49ers on offense as they break for their bye weekend.

Just about everything with Alex Smith, who has made dramatic improvement over his rocky rookie season and is beginning to live up to his status as the No. 1 overall selection in the 2005 NFL draft. Smith has looked like a different player than the 21-year-old who lacked pocket presence and passing accuracy last year while fumbling 11 times and throwing 11 interceptions with just one touchdown pass in seven starts. Smith's rapid rise began in training camp and carried over to the regular season, where he seemingly sets a new career high in some passing category on a weekly basis. Tall, strong and not afraid to stand up to a pass rush, Smith no longer forces passes into coverage and shows a comfort in the pocket he never displayed last season. Smith didn't have his streak of 139 consecutive passes without an interception - the fourth-best in team history - snapped until throwing his first pick in Week 4, and he also has shown an ability to make plays with his feet. He can throw deep, too, a dimension that has been lacking in the San Franciso offense since Steve Young retired. Smith enters the bye week as the NFL's 12th-ranked quarterback with a passer rating of 86.4, completing 59.6 percent of his passes for 1,285 yards through the first six games, during which he also has been one of the league's top passers on third down. Not to be overlooked is the presence of Trent Dilfer, the veteran backup who has had a considerable influence on Smith as both a mentor and sounding board.
WHAT'S WRONG: Considering the huge strides Smith has made in so many areas, it is difficult to find practically anything that's gone wrong with his development so far in 2006. He has ranked among the upper half of NFL quarterbacks in the league passer ratings since throwing for a career-high 288 yards in the season opener - a figure he topped two weeks later - and has been one of the primary players responsible for San Francisco's major improvement on offense.

Frank Gore has either led the NFL in rushing or ranked high among the league leaders each week so far this season after starting off with a 16-carry, 87-yard, two-touchdown effort in the opener at Arizona, then following that with a career-high 127 yards the next week against St. Louis. Gore had a new career high in Week 5 with 134 yards - the most in a game by a San Francisco back since 2004 - and his combination of power and explosiveness has him on course to becoming one of the NFL's premiere running backs. Gore's surging, low-to-the-ground style moves the pile and adds extra yards to short runs, and he is a dangerous weapon in the open field who runs better downhill than any 49ers running back since Garrison Hearst in his prime. Gore also has spent most of the season as San Francisco's leading receiver, and that's another dimension of his game opponents must contend with. Gore has 520 yards rushing on 112 carries, a 4.6 average, and ranks third among the NFL's leading rushers at the bye, trailing leader Tiki Barber by 13 years. Gore, who leads the 49ers with 24 receptions, also ranks third in the league in yards from scrimmage with 722. Maurice Hicks also has been a threat on passing downs, taking a screen pass 33 yards into the end zone for the first receiving touchdown of his career in Week 5. The 49ers have received some tough inside running from rookie Michael Robinson, who scored two touchdowns on 1-yard plunges in Week 3 and has earned himself a role in short-yardage situations. Moran Norris appears to have taken away the regular starting role at fullback from holdover Chris Hetherington, and Norris has helped pave the way for Gore with some tremendous blocking.
WHAT'S WRONG: Gore lost a fumble in each of San Francisco's first four games, and each of them was costly. He finally got a grip in Week 5, but it is a problem that bears monitoring. Gore has held up well to the punishment he receives as the featured back, but the 49ers must be careful about wearing him out as he already has had games of 29 and 27 carries so far this year. The offense revolves around Gore, so keeping him healthy is imperative. While Robinson is a tough, hard-nosed runner, he hasn't been able to make much of his opportunities, averaging less than three yards a carry.

Antonio Bryant has given the 49ers their best all-around threat at receiver since Terrell Owens left town in 2003, and he is a home run waiting to happen from any point on the field. Bryant plays hard, is tough and physical, and has all the tools to attain stardom. He began his career in San Francisco with back-to-back 100-yard receiving games, including a 72-yard touchdown pass from Smith that left Bryant leading the NFL with an average of 30.6 yards per catch entering Week 3. Arnaz Battle has provided a solid complement to Bryant at the other starting slot, making the tough catch in traffic and also helping the team with his blocking down the field. He had a career-high two touchdown catches in Week 5. Third receiver Bryan Gilmore also has made his presence felt, using his speed to reel in a 75-yard pass from Smith in Week 3. The receivers as a group have been considerably improved over San Francisco's 2005 unit.
WHAT'S WRONG: The volatile Bryant went off with some emotional, heat-of-battle tantrums in each of San Francisco's first two games, raising questions about his temperament and how it would affect both him and the team. Bryant has since toned down his act and that no longer seems to be a problem. After his auspicious debut with the 49ers, Bryant now sees regular double-teaming in coverage, so the passing game has had to adjust accordingly. The 49ers must make opponents pay when they attempt to take Bryant out of the game. The 49ers also would like to see a little more from third-round draft pick Brandon Williams as the team's fourth receiver.

Highly-touted Vernon Davis, the No. 6 overall pick in the 2006 draft, took the first reception of his NFL career and exploded down the sideline on a 31-yard scoring play just minutes into San Francisco's season opener at Arizona. That began a five-catch debut for Davis, whose speed over the middle is scary, particularly considering the mismatches it creates. Davis also has developed into a quality blocker, a dimension of his game that wasn't expected to be so far along this early. Eric Johnson also has shown some development as a blocker after a shaky start in that area, and Billy Bajema's blocking from the position also has been a boon to the running game. Johnson had a seven-catch game in Week 3 and has shown good hands and ability to find the seams in coverage after missing the 2005 season with a foot injury.
WHAT'S WRONG: Davis fractured his right fibula in Week 3 and won't return until November. Before he was hurt, Davis already had become an integral part of the offense with his blocking and the threat his mere presence presents in the passing game, and the 49ers missed those dimensions with him out. Johnson missed a block against Kansas City that resulted in Frank Gore getting drilled and fumbling, and the veteran needs to be more consistent in that area. Sixth-round draft pick Delanie Walker, one of the team's summer stars, dislocated his right shoulder in the Sept. 1 preseason finale and missed San Francisco's first four games. He could be a factor once healthy, and the 49ers could have used him in October after Davis went down.

This unit, as a whole, has played exceptionally well despite having to deal with some shuffling due to injuries, and it has played a major role in San Francisco's offensive emergence. The run blocking has been consistently a quality effort as the 49ers have been a top-10 rushing team all season. The pass blocking also has shown major improvement over last year as the Niners yielded just eight sacks in their first five games. To a man, center Eric Heitmann, right guard Justin Smiley and right tackle Kwame Harris have been strong in the run game, and super-sub Adam Snyder has stepped in to play superbly at both left tackle and left guard. Jonas Jennings also has had his moments when healthy, and guard Tony Wragge surprised some observers by holding his own in the trenches when called upon to replace Larry Allen early in the season.
WHAT'S WRONG: Allen, the 10-time Pro Bowler signed by the 49ers as a free agent in March, suffered MCL damage in his left knee on the sixth play of San Francisco's first offensive drive in the season opener and didn't play again before the bye. This unit survived and did a good job without him, but it is better with Allen at left guard. Jennings, too, was hampered by injuries that kept him out of multiple games. After missing 13 games last year with a torn labrum, he is proving to be injury prone. Harris still struggles on occasion in pass blocking, particularly against speed rushers. Snyder, the emerging second-year player, is better than at least a few regulars in front of him and probably should be starting over one of them. And what has happened to David Baas? The No. 33 overall pick in the draft last year has been a non-factor on this much-improved group.

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